To COVID (about a fifth of Americans say they won't be vaccinated) and to the flu (vaccination rates for that are down by about a third this season), we can in this difficult period add yet another scourge: Information disorder (no vaccination available).
It is another pandemic, and it has been building for years. Conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation, simple old-fashioned, persistent ignorance — they are rampant in the U.S. today. It is what the Aspen Institute, in a sobering new study, calls "a crisis of trust and truth."
The institute, which released its 78-page report to (too) little fanfare the other day, may not be the ideal group for an undertaking like this, which itself is a symptom of the problem. The group is unmistakably elitist, which is to say that its leaders are loaded with advanced degrees, a feature that in some precincts of the country is itself disqualifying. One of the commissioners of this study is Prince Harry, whose advice and judgment are not universally treasured. But put all that aside. This is serious work about a serious problem, and it deserves serious attention. Trust and truth are the fundamental building blocks of civil society.
This group has a passel of recommendations, most of which are likely to be ignored, and some of which are so reasonable that they definitely will be ignored, though first they will be criticized or ridiculed. That reflects the temper of the times, and in fact it serves to underline how serious this problem is. But if recognition of a problem is the first step toward addressing it, we are fortunate: The group's analysis of the crisis warrants our attention, even as the holidays approach, even as our political conversation continues to coarsen, even if outright untruths continue to proliferate. So here is an annotated look at some of that analysis:
The problem extends well beyond state-sponsored disinformation, or health scams promoting miracle cures; it is rooted in broader challenges facing the nation — from increasing income inequality, to decreasing levels of public trust in institutions, to the constant churning cycle of news and information, to the splintering of media writ large, to the explosion of social media. Combined, these enormous changes are fertile ground for the seeds of information disorder.
This one brief statement on the eighth page of the report lays bare the extent of the crisis. Of course, the left stresses income inequality, the right is skeptical of established institutions, the news media produce an endless (and sometimes mindless) stream of information, members of the public veer toward media sources that salve their wounds, and social media is inescapable. Any one of those issues would be a formidable challenge for a nation at peace. The combination of them all is daunting, and given the culture war that is raging in our streets, schools and institutions, we arguably are not at peace.
Information disorder is a whole-of-society problem that can have life-or-death consequences. It will require urgent and meaningful interventions, resources, legal and policy changes, and the commitments of every part of society to reverse these disturbing trends.
The group is asking social media outlets to publish the source of some of their posts and to disclose the source of some of their ads and paid posts. It advocates a "comprehensive strategic approach to countering disinformation and the spread of misinformation." It calls for the creation of an independent organization to develop countermeasures to misinformation. It recommends increased diversity in social media platforms and mainstream media.
Information disorder is a problem that cannot be completely solved. Its eradication is not the end goal. Instead, the commission's goal is to mitigate misinformation's worst harms with prioritization for the most vulnerable segments of our society.
Americans think of themselves as problem-solvers. We saw the threat of tyranny in World War II, and we destroyed it. We saw the challenge of a world wrecked by conflict after the war, and we healed it. We set ourselves the goal of reaching the moon, and we got there. We confronted international communism, and we prevailed.
We like to take on a task and complete it. We won't be able to do that with information disorder; by its very definition, it eludes final conquest. Then again, we didn't solve disease, racism or poverty, either. The key comes in one of the most important and most ignored passages in John F. Kennedy's inaugural address ("Let us begin") and in Lyndon B. Johnson's speech five days after the Kennedy assassination ("Let us continue").
In a free society, a certain amount of misinformation will always exist; our task is not to eradicate every half-truth or willful misrepresentation of the facts — a task that is not only impossible but even undesirable in a free society.
We need to acknowledge that bad ideas are the price we pay for a free society and embrace what Dwight Eisenhower said, in extemporaneous remarks, at the Dartmouth College commencement in 1953: "Don't join the book-burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book."
Economic, social and racial disparities have created an environment ripe for targeted disinformation that can cause significant harm to communities of color ... disinformation campaigns have been targeted to one community with the intention of promoting false beliefs about another, including Black/African American, Asian American, Muslim and religious minorities, LGBTQIA+, and Indigenous nations and communities.
The best commentary on this theme comes from the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and from two sentences in President Kennedy's 1963 civil-rights speech. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."
The truth is the best version of what we know in that moment with the evidence available, and ... over time we will undoubtedly learn more and may need to reconcile what we know.
This is the core principle of the journalism practiced in these pages and in the outlets of the mainstream media. At the center of this is the notion that no idea or report be disseminated that is knowingly false. Some of those reports may turn out to be wrong. That is what the Corrections column is for. Long may it be published.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @ShribmanPG.